· 7 min read · Features

HR magazine's 50 most influential HR practitioners and thinkers 2009

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Our readers have spoken, and in the most in-depth investigation of its kind ever undertaken, have revealed who they consider to be the most influential names in HR in 2009. Sian Harrington examines the results of our exclusive survey, discovers why some practitioners and thinkers stand out from the crowd - and hears what fellow HR professionals really think about them.

East Finchley and Ann Arbor have little in common. One is a typical London suburb towards the end of the Northern Line, housing the capital's oldest and largest municipal cemetery and the multi-million pound properties of The Bishop's Avenue. The other is in a productive agricultural and fruit-growing region on the Huron River in Michigan and is consistently ranked highly in the US media's 'top places to live' lists.

Yet strangely, there is a connection. The land on which East Finchley stands was once part of the Bishop of London's hunting grounds, while Michigan is home to more licensed hunters (a million plus, contributing $2 billion annually to its economy) than anywhere else in the United States.

Perhaps it is this hunting instinct that marks out the top two individuals in this year's HR Most Influential ranking, for both have relentlessly pursued the advancement of HR in their careers. Inspiring and challenging, our Most Influential Practitioner, David Fairhurst, and Thinker, Dave Ulrich, top the list for the second year running.

From his East Finchley office, Fairhurst - the senior vice president and chief people officer at McDonald's Europe - has debunked the McJobs myth of low pay, low prestige and low advancement. Since joining the fast-food chain he has introduced the innovative family contract, developed a pan-European talent management programme and launched the McDonald's diploma. But he has not just changed the way McDonald's is perceived. Fairhurst has consistently championed the HR profession - and his visibility and energy have helped him to secure the top practitioner position again this year.

Says one HR chief: "Too often Fairhurst is criticised for being a publicist. However, HR needs more evangelists who make the profession popular and appealing. He has forged his career with principally two organisations - being a sticker and seeing things through counts big time." Another says: "His achievements at McDonald's are phenomenal. He continues to share his work freely and to innovate."

Across the pond, Ulrich, professor of business at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, continues to impress the HR community. He has been voted the Most Influential Thinker every year since we launched the list in 2006 and, judging from the votes, the crown is welded firmly to his head. He is in a class of his own, with nearly double the score of his nearest rival Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at London Business School.

"Ulrich is still the undisputed number one HR thinker," says one HR leader. Another adds: "He is continuing to develop and build thinking - getting out there physically to share it - and he adapts his thinking in changing circumstances."

For this fourth Most Influential ranking, in association with Ceridian, HR asked Henley Business School to review the 2008 methodology, as the use of a literature review to identify criteria for influence was deemed less satisfactory than understanding what key players in HR - particularly those in the listings and those senior people in HR who they are influencing - consider to be influential.

"We believe the 2009 HR Most Influential survey is the most in-depth investigation of individual influence in HR in the UK yet undertaken," say Henley Business School researchers Benjamin Reid and Liz Houldsworth.

"By eliciting specific reasons from those rating influence, we have gained greater insight into what creates an influential figure in HR, in addition to being able to arrive at a ranking of those individuals who are 'most influential'."

The list highlights important aspects of influence that were not captured in the 2008 survey regarding challenge, criticism and ambassadorial roles.

"In these turbulent times for companies, those who emerge as influential thinkers appear to be challenging conventional thinking, whereas those who emerge as influential practitioners appear to be individuals who have continued to perform strongly in the face of very challenging external circumstances," say Reid and Houldsworth.

One surprise is that, despite more than 10 specialist areas of HR being mentioned in relation to nominees, there were only two mentions of 'talent' or 'talent management' in total, despite talent management and succession planning regularly topping the lists of HR directors' priority issues.

The primary drivers of influence are captured by: the level of profile and visibility an individual has - partly an aspect of the visibility of their role in general; their track record in achieving either change or consistent performance; whether they have become known for a specialist area; whether they either challenge conventional wisdom or take on stiff challenges; and whether they can articulate and present their experience or expertise with passion and clarity.

As with the 2008 rankings, this year's lists divide into two groups. For practitioners, there is a top tier, with five individuals scoring most highly. This top five was all male in 2008 but includes three women this year. Closest to Fairhurst is NHS director general of workforce Clare Chapman, who jumps four places to number two and is the top public sector HR director, thanks to her great strides in revolutionising what one peer called the "untransformable NHS".

Martin Tiplady, HR director for the Metropolitan Police Service, retains his number three spot while Sainsbury's HR director Imelda Walsh moves from eighth to fourth place. With National Policing Improvement Agency chief people officer Angela O'Connor jumping two places to fifth position, we find three of the top five practitioners coming from the public sector - far greater than in previous years.

The big practitioner winners are Google HR director Liane Hornsey, who catapaults in at number six, Northern Rock HR director Richard Smelt, who enters the top 10, and Tesco group managing director human resources Catherine Glickman, who jumps into the number 11 spot.

The biggest losers reflect their changing positions in the HR sector. Neil Roden, HR director of RBS, has understandably had a low profile in the past 12 months. Despite his number two placing last year, and consistent top three placing since HR's Most Influential launched, he did not make it onto the shortlist and was not suggested as an omission by any of the respondents.

Other disappearances this year include former Cadbury Schweppes head of HR Bob Stack, who has retired, and Phillippa Hird, ex-head of HR at ITV, who is moving into consultancy.

The Most Influential Thinker list lost three of 2008's top 10: Charles Handy, Stephen Covey and Richard Donkin. Linda Holbeche, who leaves her role as director of research and policy at the CIPD this month, rises three places to number three while CIPD boss Jackie Orme, former head of HR at PepsiCo, jumps across the practitioner to thinker divide and into fourth position.

Thanks to his heightened profile commenting on the recession, Work Foundation chief executive Will Hutton moves from seventh to fifth place. According to one who voted for him, he has "vast experience and insight". Also because of the current economic climate, the BBC's award-winning business editor, Robert Peston, makes his first appearance on our list, in at number 20.

Veterans Rob Goffee, London Business School professor of organisational behaviour, and Adrian Furnham, professor of psychology at University College London, move into the top 10 from outside it on the 2008 thinkers ranking.

The first new entry on the thinkers list is Wayne Clarke, partner at Best Companies, at number 11. Only three individuals from the 2008 list rise more than four places: Furnham; Paul Sparrow, Lancaster University Management School's director, centre for performance-led HR; and Xancam chief executive Maria Yapp.

This year we asked members of HR's Leaders Club, who ranked their top seven individuals on a shortlist, to qualify the reasons for their vote in order to construct a detailed, nuanced understanding of 'influence' in the HR sphere (see charts, page 32).

Many noted aspects of the individual nominee's context - either the broader economic situation or their profile within HR - in their justifications. They also cited 'roles' that influential individuals had taken up - as a respected elder of the HR world, for instance, or an ambassador who speaks for HR to the outside world. In the case of Best Companies' Clarke, it was for the role he has in controlling something HR directors, and chief executives, want access to.

The respondents mentioned a wide range of topics or areas of expertise that they felt the HR thinkers held, ranging from industrial relations and social networking to human capital measurement. A range of more personal qualities were also noted, particularly the degree of insight and originality a thinker had, and their ability to present those ideas cogently. There were also several dimensions of the kinds of ideas and thoughts these HR thinkers were contributing to. These ranged from contributions through research to comments regarding individual's clarity of thinking being relevant, original and pragmatic.

An additional aspect of HR thinkers' work not picked up by last year's method was the importance of providing a challenging viewpoint, including holding controversial views, going against the conventional wisdom and provoking thought.

The model for understanding HR practitioner influence overlaps with that of HR thinker, but certain elements are emphasised more. Consistency and tenure appear closely linked to respect, as shown by comments such as: "In HR (those who) stay with their company for a long time can really embed progressive initiatives and test the results" and "(he) has probably been with the same employer at a senior level for longer than any other person on this shortlist. He has also been visibly influential for much of that time - and in an industry not noted for its longevity of service".

Some of those considered influential were distinctly low-profile. "What she has done has been clearly for the good of her company rather than being driven by the desire to further her own career and profile," was one comment. Another referred to "a quietly impressive HR leader with real backbone".

A term used only in relation to practitioners was 'courage'. This suggests influence, through role-modelling, in terms of their tenacity in the face of difficulties. The idea of role-modelling courage is closely related to an important aspect of practitioner influence: the willingness to take on a challenge. That these reasons should be so prominent suggests, again, that 'showing how the job is done' is as influential as being visible in telling people about how it is, or should be, done. Comments included: "Taken on probably the greatest HR challenge in the world both in terms of size and complexity of organisation and with high-level political interference"; "willing to get his hands dirty"; and "leading an organisation through a storm with all the implications that has in terms of process and people, and maintaining the viability of the business".

Although it is normally thinkers who are thought of as specialists, many of the practitioners are also known for specialist areas - for example, Sainsbury's Walsh for flexible working, McDonald's Fairhurst and Google's Hornsey for employer branding, Broadway HR director Helen Giles for non-profit advocacy, Microsoft's Dave Gartenberg for global implementation and both Oracle HR director Vance Kearney and Thomson Reuters executive vice president and chief human resources officer Stephen Dando for mergers.

Whatever their interest, this year's Most Influential HR practitioners and thinkers have been judged to be a cut above the rest. There are some notable omissions, particularly those who have been concentrating on rebuilding leadership and morale in the worst hit sectors. We've suggested other influential directors and thinkers on our website (www.hrmagazine.co.uk).

People issues keep CEOs awake at night. Those on our list help them get a better night's sleep. As Doug Sawers, managing director of our sponsor Ceridian, says: "I detect a real modernising air beginning to sweep through the profession, as those closest to what great HR thinking and practise can do for business and society emerge at this very challenging time.

"The work of HR as a profession and as a grouping of influence still has some distance to go before it truly reaches its ultimate position, at or near the top of every corporate and governmental agenda, but it is clear that many of this year's list will make this happen."

See the full Most influential List and a Dave Ulrich's acceptance speech

Some photographs from the Most Influential event at Claridge's in London